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The Case Against Willie Martinez

On Saturday night, after much discussion and reflection during a roundabout drive home which afforded additional (and appreciated) time during which to ruminate and converse, I advocated firing Willie Martinez as Georgia’s defensive coordinator.

Although I had taken this position before, I did so more heatedly and angrily, and I later backed off from the position. I have now returned to it, but pensively rather than vengefully. Because my co-author, MaconDawg, for whom I have the utmost respect, disagrees with my position, and because we here at Dawg Sports take no small amount of pride in the quality of the discourse that takes place here, I thought my argument required further explication.

I write this in much the same spirit that George Will wrote Restoration, as a convert to a position with which I previously disagreed, who hopes not to fan the flames of passion to encourage hasty action in the heat of the moment, but to state a persuasive case in order to promote thoughtful discussion over a potentially divisive issue in Bulldog Nation, one which ends in a reasoned conclusion arrived at without acrimony. I have invited MaconDawg to craft a case for the other side, but, obviously, all of you are invited to respond, as well.

One point in need of being addressed concerns the validity of my previous argument about the number of games the Bulldogs have lost in the last four years in which the Red and Black scored what historically have been enough points to win. When Viper2369 posted a link to my posting at The DawgChat, Rockmart Dawg offered a sensible retort:

For a VERY LONG time offensive schemes were completely melded with an overall game plan so as to keep opposing offenses on the sideline, run the ball, run the clock, and control the clock. Low-scoring affairs were the norm.

When Eric Zeier was recruited to Georgia it officially signaled the beginning of a brand new era at UGA, that being a pass-heavy offensive game plan... for the FIRST TIME EVER. That was... what.... 1990/1991?!

Have that same person tell us how many times since Goff was at the helm that UGA has scored more than 28 points and I guarantee you the ratio will far exceed that of all of the previous 100 years of Georgia football. The same will be true for the entire nation.

The game has changed significantly in the past 15-20 years.

Undeniably, Rockmart Dawg makes a good point. In Vince Dooley’s first season as the Bulldogs’ head coach in 1964, Georgia went 7-3-1, never scored more than 24 points in a game, and won three games by the final margin of 7-0. Times have changed.

However, football is cyclical. Major league baseball can be delineated sharply between the "dead ball" and "lively ball" eras; the same cannot be said for college football, which is a constant tug of war between offensive innovation and defensive adaptation. Bear Bryant once ruled the Southeastern Conference with the wishbone; Paul Johnson’s triple option is effective, in part, because it is seldom seen and can catch an opponent unprepared, much like Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s swinging gate maneuver at Gettysburg.

Georgia football didn’t start scoring points in bunches until Eric Zeier was under center? Tell that to Wally Butts, whose first two S.E.C. championship teams won conference games by such scores as 33-14 (Florida in 1946), 35-7 (Georgia Tech in 1946), 34-0 (Georgia Tech in 1942), 48-13 (Ole Miss in 1942), 41-0 (Auburn in 1946), and 75-0 (Florida in 1942).

Vince Dooley’s teams were purely about rock-ribbed defense, sound special teams, and a ball-control offense that kept the ‘Dawgs on the right side of low-scoring affairs? Tell that to the 1981 Tennessee and Georgia Tech teams and the 1982 Florida squad, which lost to Georgia by margins of 44-0, 44-7, and 44-0, respectively.

I will grant, however, that those scores are somewhat aberrational over the long course of Bulldog football history. These scores, though, are not:

13-7. 27-25. 18-13. 48-17. 52-24. 13-20. 31-17. 24-21. 30-3.

Those are the final scores of Georgia’s nine Southeastern Conference games (including the S.E.C. championship game) from the 2002 season.

In Brian VanGorder’s second season as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator, the Red and Black held two conference opponents in the single digits, allowed three more to score in the teens, and gave up more than 21 points just twice.

In 1986, for the first time in his then-23 seasons in Athens, Coach Dooley’s Bulldogs began the season by passing out of the shotgun formation. In order to let his team know he was serious about fielding a balanced attack, Coach Dooley publicly announced before the season started that Georgia’s first play from scrimmage would be from the shotgun.

He was true to his word. Against Duke in the opener, James Jackson took the snap and threw a nine-yard completion to Tim Worley. Georgia again lined up in the shotgun on the following play. It was a handoff to Keith Henderson, who picked up eight yards. The ‘Dawgs would not use the shotgun for the remainder of the game. Afterwards, Coach Dooley told the media, "You didn’t think we were going wild, did you?"

One week later, after David Treadwell’s last-second field goal gave Clemson its second win ever between the hedges and Georgia its second loss ever in which the Bulldogs scored 28 points, defensive coordinator Bill Lewis said, "28 points should be enough for us to win two football games." To reiterate, times have changed.

They haven’t changed that much, though. They haven’t changed so much that Coach VanGorder couldn’t figure out how to make halftime adjustments. During the aforementioned 2002 season, Georgia had to survive a number of second-half comebacks, eking out wins against Clemson (by the same 31-28 score by which the ‘Dawgs lost to the Tigers in 1986), South Carolina (13-7), Alabama (27-25), and Tennessee (18-13).

After the midpoint of the regular season, though, the Red and Black started slamming the door after intermission, surrendering just seven second-half points to Vanderbilt, none to Kentucky, eight to Florida, none to Ole Miss, seven to Auburn, seven to Georgia Tech, three to Arkansas, and six to Florida State.

How does this year’s defense compare to that year’s? After the break, Willie Martinez’s 2008 Bulldogs gave up 21 to the Bayou Bengals, 35 to the Gators, 24 to the Wildcats, seven to the Plainsmen, and 33 to the Yellow Jackets in their last five games. Even allowing for offensive and special teams miscues, that represents a clear regression, over the course of the season and over the course of Coach Martinez’s tenure as defensive coordinator. Maybe we no longer live in a world in which it is reasonable to expect to hold an opponent to three touchdowns or fewer over the course of a game, but surely it is not too much to ask that our defense not give up 21 or more points in the second half in four of their last five regular-season outings.

In saying so, however, I am focusing on Coach Martinez’s worst efforts. MaconDawg’s measured argument against firing the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator includes the fair point that Coach Martinez deserves to be judged on his entire body of work. Writes MaconDawg:

I am not a proponent of firing Willie Martinez. It's amazing how quickly people have forgotten his "brilliant" gameplans against Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma State in 2007. However, if we're going to win with his system we have to have all the parts.

Coach Martinez does deserve the credit for the Bulldogs’ defensive efforts in those games; indeed, the performance of the Georgia D during the 2006 stretch run against Auburn, Georgia Tech, and Virginia Tech had much to do with my having reversed course on the idea of letting him go two years ago.

Coach Martinez’s problem isn’t that he’s bad, it’s that he’s maddeningly inconsistent and becoming less reliable with the passage of time. For every great defensive game plan that has been executed well, there has been another defensive effort which was lacking in game planning, execution, or both. When you compare the performance of his defensive unit with the performance of Mike Bobo’s offensive unit (and particularly Stacy Searels’s offensive line) as the season has progressed, the contrast is obvious and undeniable.

Coach Martinez’s performance as defensive coordinator reflects, and is reflected in, the way his charges have played on the field. Their inconsistency mirrors his own. Rockmart Dawg is right that teams score more now than they did a decade and a half ago, but that only means the standards for defensive success are lower than they were before. With Matthew Stafford, Knowshon Rockwell Moreno, Mohamed Massaquoi, and A.J. Green lining up on the offensive side of the ball, Willie Martinez’s defense doesn’t have to shut opponents down the way Erk Russell’s Junkyard ‘Dawgs did, yet, even with a lower bar to clear, Coach Martinez is failing to live up to a reduced standard. His continued employment in his present capacity suggests that his retention is the result of a "No Coach Left Behind" policy.

If it’s unfair for me to claim that a team that scores 28 points ought to win a football game, fine. How about 30 points? Georgia scored 30 or more points in a losing effort five times in the 111 seasons prior to Willie Martinez’s elevation to defensive coordinator in the Classic City; Georgia has scored 30 or more points in a losing effort five times in the four years since.

If 30 still is too low, fine. How about 33? Brian VanGorder was Georgia’s defensive coordinator for four years during the 20th century and, during those four years, the Red and Black never lost a game in which they scored more than 17 points. Surely it is not unreasonable to say the Bulldog D ought to perform well enough for the ‘Dawgs to win a game in which the Classic City Canines score nearly double the number of points that sufficed week in and week out just five years ago, yet Georgia scored 33 or more points and lost two times between 1892 and 2004 . . . and Georgia scored 33 or more points and lost three times between 2005 and 2008.

However, MaconDawg makes a fair point that winning with Willie Martinez’s system (which is, after all, Brian VanGorder’s system) requires having the proper parts. This is a point similar to the one Mark Richt made when, in a disturbingly Donnanesque moment, he recently said this:

People don’t get it. People think they know but they don’t. I mean, if people really knew football, they’d know that we’ve been blitzing; they’d know that we’ve been playing zero coverage; they’d know we’ve been playing cover one; they’d know that we’ve been playing robber [coverage]; we’ve been go fire-zone with cover three behind it; fire-zones with cover two behind it. So if they really knew football they wouldn’t be saying the things they say. But they don’t.

It’s the same basic defensive scheme that we’ve had since we got here. You know, it’s not like a kind of philosophical issue. I mean, the philosophy of our defense hasn’t really changed hardly at all in eight years. And we’ve not been in this spot in the past. So that’s not the problem.

The emphasis added is mine, because I believe the point is rather telling. While I do not pretend to be an X and O guy, and while I freely admit that I don’t know one-tenth as much football as Coach Richt knows, there may be a problem with playing "the same basic defensive scheme" that "hasn’t really changed hardly at all in eight years."

Eight years ago, Dennis Franchione was the head coach at Alabama; today, Nick Saban is. Eight years ago, Al Borges had not yet been hired as the offensive coordinator at Auburn; now, Tony Franklin has been fired as the offensive coordinator at Auburn, and Tommy Tuberville followed not far behind. Eight years ago, Steve Spurrier was running the Fun ‘n’ Gun at Florida; today, Urban Meyer is operating the spread option in Gainesville. Eight years ago, George O’Leary was stalking the sidelines at The Flats; today, Paul Johnson has brought back the triple option at Georgia Tech. How many times has Tennessee changed offensive coordinators since the hobnailed boot was brought down in the checkerboard end zone?

The world has turned more than a few times since 2001. For whatever reason, Willie Martinez has not kept up, at least not consistently, and the types of offensive attacks against which his defenses historically have struggled are becoming more prevalent and prolific rather than less so. Has Urban Meyer’s tweaking of his offensive system made it more productive during his tenure in Gainesville? I believe it has. Will Paul Johnson’s triple option become even more effective as he recruits players specifically suited to running it? I believe it will. Can Willie Martinez out-plan, out-scheme, out-think, and out-coach the shrewd men who appear on the opposite sideline each and every Saturday? I no longer believe he can.

Willie Martinez is not an idiot. He is neither inflexible nor arrogant nor ignorant. Willie Martinez is a fine man. In many ways, he is a good coach all the time, and, in most ways, he is a good coach much of the time. I take no joy in taking the position I am advocating. Nevertheless, facts are facts and these numbers do not lie. Point out all the Matthew Stafford interceptions you like; take note of every directional kickoff that sailed out of bounds and set up the opposition with good starting field position; stress the fact that offenses historically have not scored as much as they now do; I concede all of that, yet still there is no denying this:

Scoring 30 points at home ought to win you a football game, but, against Auburn in 2005, it didn’t. Scoring 35 points in a bowl game an hour’s drive from your campus ought to win you a football game, but, against West Virginia in the 2006 Sugar Bowl, it didn’t. Scoring 33 points at home ought to win you a football game, but, against Tennessee in 2006, it didn’t. Scoring 30 points in a night game at home ought to win you a football game, but, against Alabama in 2008, it didn’t. Scoring 42 points at home ought to win you a football game, but, against Georgia Tech in 2008, it didn’t.

Many problems bedevil the Bulldogs, not all of which begin or end with the defense. The most serious of these problems, however, concern Coach Martinez’s area of responsibility, and I have not yet heard a satisfactory justification for the proposition that Willie Martinez ought not to be held responsible for the poor performance of the Georgia defense this fall and for the steady decline of the exceptional unit he inherited from Brian VanGorder. Absent the making of a persuasive argument I have not yet heard, I must conclude---not at all happily, but nevertheless sincerely---that the time has come for a new man to be named the defensive coordinator at the University of Georgia.

I like Willie Martinez, but I love my team, and it is to my team that my first loyalty is owed. That same obligation is incumbent upon every person with an office in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

Go ‘Dawgs.